The emergence of Turkey as a major world player

It is no longer a country which others may cross with impunity: today, Turkey matters
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The Independent Culture
IF THERE'S one thing Western diplomats never tire of, it's arguing over which are the world's most important capitals. Obviously, top dog is Washington; not since our own sweet selves in the 19th century has one country so dominated global events.

But after that? Moscow is still just about up there, if only on account of loose nukes and a vestigial capacity for international mischief-making, Next come the old chancelleries of Europe - Paris, Berlin, London - though diplomatic missions at international organisations such as the United Nations and the European Union these days are in truth at least as important. Tokyo, Delhi and Peking also matter, but are too remote to make the A list. And that's about it. Except that right now I would add another capital - Ankara.

Suspend disbelief for an instant and consider the following apparently unconnected events from the front pages in the last few months: the European Union ties itself in knots over enlargement; American and British warplanes again attack Saddam Hussein's air defences; Syria, self-appointed and disdainful arbiter of peace in the Middle East, suddenly starts worrying about encirclement; the Kosovo Albanians search for historical allies and protectors; oil companies and governments wrangle over how to exploit the great energy eldorado of central Asia; and a teenage Kurdish girl sets herself on fire outside a London embassy. Which country is an important factor in every one of them? Not Britain. Not even the US. The answer is Turkey.

Even so, my suggestion sounds preposterous. Isn't Turkey the place that the EU won't touch with a bargepole, a country burdened by a fragile caretaker government and a dirty civil war against the Kurds, and whose economic problems are evident from a currency presently trading at some 538,000 to the pound? Yes, indeed, all this is true. But, for its neighbours, the state that Mustafa Kemal founded in 1923 looks quite strong and influential enough. Just ask Cyprus, Greece or Syria.

In December, unyielding Turkish hostility forced the Cypriots to cancel the planned deployment of Russian missiles, after Ankara had warned it would attack the island to destroy them. A couple of months earlier, Turkey massed troops on its border with Syria and quietly brandished its unofficial strategic partnership with Israel to force Damascus to expel Abdullah Ocalan.

And now the sensational capture of the Kurdish guerrilla leader in Kenya, where he had been sheltered by the Greeks. Not for years has Athens been so humiliated by its ancestral foe. The triumph may in the longer run be counter-productive, but for Turks today it must be sweet indeed.

But, as one seasoned Turkey-watcher put it to me: "It's not so much that Turkey is suddenly starting to throw its weight around, because it always has. It's just that we notice it now."

And not surprisingly, given that Turkey, geographically straddling Europe and Asia and one of the most populous countries bordering the Mediterranean, seems to be involved, one way or another, in about every diplomatic developments of note, from Brussels to Tashkent.

It is, first of all, a key member of Nato - once as the front line against the Soviet Union, today as the alliance's easternmost member, and destined surely for even greater importance if Nato this spring adopts a new doctrine enabling it to operate beyond its original European theatre. Indeed, the use of the Incirlik base by Britain and America to patrol the northern no-fly zone in Iraq is probably but a foretaste of things to come.

But Turkey, thanks to its ever closer co-operation with Israel, is now a factor in the other Middle East crisis. Both countries insist that there is nothing sinister about their military co-operation. The fact is that Turkey is now one side of a "triangle" protecting the Jewish state, alongside the US and Jordan (admittedly rather wobbly at the moment).

Now switch to Europe. Turks form the largest immigrant community in Europe, and especially in Germany, the EU's largest economy. Peer behind the dispute over Germany's new citizenship law, and you find the problem of the Turkish Gastarbeiter, officially foreigners but German in all but blood. The EU is wrestling with enlargement. But all could come to grief over Cyprus if Greece carries out its threat to veto any new members in Eastern Europe, should a divided Cyprus be refused admission. And who is most adamantly opposed to a unified Cyprus? The Turkish-sponsored statelet in the north of the island.

Which brings us to the Cyprus issue, unsolved for a quarter of a century, and still a flashpoint of potential war between two Nato countries. And, picking our way through a similar minefield of religious and ethnic conflict in the Balkans, we arrive at a real war in Kosovo. This time the Russians, not the Greeks, are the patron power of the Christian party to the conflict. Among the most natural champions of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian Muslims are - you will have guessed by now - the Turks.

And the patron's role stretches back across the Dardanelles to the Turkic peoples of former Soviet Transcaucasia and Central Asia.

Today the role is more imagined than real, though note where Azerbaijan's President Geydar Aliyev went for medical treatment recently: not to London or Paris, but to Istanbul. But tomorrow, as the energy resources of the Caspian and Turkmenistan come on stream, transported to Europe almost certainly across Turkey, it will be a different story.

And finally the Kurds. Ocalan's capture may not have ended Ankara's Kurdish problem. Even though military victory in the long civil war in Turkey's south east may now be assured, this week's rash of embassy occupations has done more to make people aware of the Kurdish problem than a decade of protests of human rights groups at the brutal, repressive tactics of Turkey's security forces.

But the miserable odyssey of the "world's most unwanted man" tells its own story. Yes, his final seizing doubtless owes something to the assistance of the Americans and Israelis (both, we have seen, most anxious to stay in Ankara's good books). But it was Turkey's obduracy, and the bolted asylum doors across Europe, which drove him to the undignified refuge of a Greek embassy outbuilding in sub-Saharan Africa. Turkey is no longer a country that others may cross with impunity. Turkey matters, a great deal.

So if I were a young Foreign Office entrant today, not worried about getting my feet dirty, I wouldn't want to go to Washington or Paris. I'd be boning up on the various crises of the Middle East, EU foreign policy, the Balkans, Islamic radicalism and the politics of big oil; and I'd be angling for Ankara.

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